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What is a taper?
I am referring to the last long run you do before the marathon. Then the taper starts & you cut back on the miles so that you go into the run with fresh legs, feeling recovered and raring to go. For professional athletes it’s about ensuring they are at peak fitness on race day.
There are many different thoughts on this and none are right or wrong. Do what makes you feel comfortable. If you go on to do other marathons you can try different lengths of taper if you feel you haven’t got it quite right. We are all different, we train differently and what is your perfect taper will be different for each of us.
I ran a poll on Twitter:
In a Marathon build up how long do you taper for?
4 weeks or more: 3%
3 weeks: 32%
2 weeks: 53%
No taper: 12%
Different approaches to a taper
Here i have asked a few different runners about their marathon taper. Each runner has a different approach. I hope this makes you feel confident that you can choose a taper time and there is no need to worry that others are doing it differently.
Taper, it’s a bit like marmite. Us runners either love it or hate it. It can send us into nervous wrecks where every sniffle or niggle is the possible end of our marathon dream- Maranoia!
I’m currently in training for the London Marathon, which at the time of writing this, is just under 5 weeks away. It will be my 6th marathon, but my 4th road one and 3rd London.
This time around I am going for a shorter taper of 3 weeks- my longest road training run will be 20.5 miles on April 3rd- the Lidl Kingston Breakfast run. (I did run a 27 mile trail marathon at the end of January, but that wasn’t originally part of my plan) Then I’ll begin to taper, but keep cross training without any impact. I will continue with another 3 runs that week- a 5 mile recovery the day or so after Kingston, then another short run but with 3 X 1 min fast strides and about a 7 miler at marathon pace. The following week my LSR will half and go down to 10 miles but keeping the intensity of the other runs- fast strides run, 3 mile tempo and a 5 mile marathon pace!
The week before the marathon I only ever do 2 runs of about 4-5 miles each- one at marathon pace and the final run before the big day nice and easy!
I have followed this type of plan each time, except I have started tapering out much earlier. Last year my longest run was 6 weeks out- its just how the 20 mile race fell. (The year before was 5 weeks.) I went 20, 16, 13, 12, 10, 5 miles and mentally it felt too long. I got another marathon pb of 4 minutes so maybe it worked. This year, my legs, body and mind feel stronger and more prepared so I don’t feel the need for a longer rest. I’m also using London as a training run for my 50k ultra 5 weeks later, so I definitely don’t want to taper too early!
Think about that first run or two after a rest week (or two weeks, or three weeks). Do you honestly feel better, fitter, and faster? Or are they an effort, until you build back up to full fitness?
I feel I lose fitness so damn quickly when I dial down my training. Staying in top condition requires hard, regular running.
So I don’t taper for marathons. I’ve found tapering is at best unnecessary and at worst unhelpful.
I’ve tried tapering. I ran the London Marathon after a classic three week taper – 18 miles, 14 miles, 10 miles – and felt woefully underprepared on the day. I hit the wall badly and had to walk from mile 18.
I ran my second marathon with no taper – a 21 mile fasted run the preceding weekend and a flat-out maximum effort 10k PB three days beforehand – and smashed 37 minutes off my time. I was running in top condition.
I’ve run several full marathon distances in training, with no taper beforehand and no rest week afterwards, continuing on with normal training.
I have Strava stats which show clear drop-offs in performance after rest weeks, and a gradual, incremental progression back to full fitness week-on-week when full training recommences. I’ve been running since 2004; this phenomenon repeats itself even if I just miss a training run.
As I write I have my first ultra, a 31 miler, this coming weekend. I’ve prepped for it by running full marathon distance the preceding weekend.
It’s been suggested previously that this isn’t actually ‘not tapering’, given that it’s not full race distance. Which is an interesting point but I disagree; these are pretty significant distances.
Not tapering might seem unconventional, given the popular wisdom that says we must. But it’s a valid alternative, and it works.
Our bodies adapt to the load we place upon them. By reducing load, we reduce fitness.
That’s why I don’t taper.
I’m still experimenting with finding the perfect taper. I understand them to be an opportunity for you body to consolidate the training miles – there’s a generally accepted lag associated with training gains of around 2-3 weeks – and by reducing mileage, giving your body the opportunity to recover before going into a race with fresh legs. I’ve come to appreciate the value of a taper, and actually now build in low mileage weeks into my training every 3-4 weeks as a mini taper. Usually I’ve followed the rule of 3 weeks taper before a marathon, two weeks before a half, and a week before 10k or 5 mile races.
For my first marathon however, I got the taper so wrong. The long training runs really took their toll on me, so after running 23 miles for my longest run I took a 3 week taper into London. At the time I didn’t really understand the point of tapering and effectively just pretty much stopped running. This technique didn’t work for me (surprise!) and I didn’t perform at my best during that marathon. For my next marathon a year later, I was determined to get it right. My longest run was 19 miles, and taper was a finely planned 3 week affair with a mixture of marathon pacing, speedwork and cutting the mileage down gradually. I knocked 21 minutes off my previous year’s time.
This past month however, I’m beginning to feel tapering is a little overrated and outdated. I started running every day back at the end of October, a notion which goes against all I’ve previously believed. However, its purpose is as an experiment – can I get stronger and faster and avoid injury? On Day 135 I ran the Liverpool half after the highest mileage week of my runstreak (35 miles) – I have been averaging around 21 miles a week with some lower (13-15) mileage weeks as mini breaks. I didn’t taper, for this half marathon, and I ran 3 speed sessions that week, which is more than normal. I knocked 4 minutes off my PB during that half marathon.
If you’re confused about taper, which most people are as there is so much contradictory information out there, I’d advise experimenting. Everybody is different. I think if I do another marathon, I certainly wouldn’t keep up 50 mile weeks right up to the day, and would still reduce mileage to around half a couple of weeks before, but the key is knowing how your own body responds to training.
I like to do a 2 week taper. When I ran my first marathon in 2014 I looked at a whole bunch of different training plans and decided that 2 weeks sounded good to me. I just felt that longer than that was too long for me to still feel fit & ready to run a big distance.
In training for that first marathon I was doing 2/3 short runs (5k) a week & for a couple of weeks just 1; with 1 long run on the Sunday that I added to each week. Once I got above 16 miles I really felt it with only 1 short run during the week so I tried to fit in at least 2 short runs (I was working 70 hour weeks at the time). The marathon was on minimal training but after doing 22 miles 2 weeks before I felt confident & happy that I would finish the marathon,
Now I tend to do 3 runs plus a long one. I don’t do internal/speed sessions. I just run how I feel on each given run.
Now I have run more marathons but I like to stick to 20-22 miles 2 weeks before if I can. It’s all in the brain. I think 2 weeks is plenty for me to recover from that last long run. After the last long one generally I’ll do a couple of 5k runs, around 6 miles the weekend before then a couple more 5k runs in the week leading up to the marathon.
The day before Berlin Marathon there was a breakfast run and I really enjoyed that so since then I do a short, slow & easy run of 2-3 miles the day before a race (if time allows for it).
During the taper it is common to be paranoid about niggles & colds. My advice would be to keep your immune system boosted, try to keep calm & relax during the taper. I always take Echinacea & vitamin C with Zinc. If you feel a niggle during the taper (in my experience) it is normally your mind playing tricks on you…..if it lasts for a few days & you are really worried consider seeing an osteopath or physio to put your mind at rest/ get fixed if there is an issue.